When Tim Leffel was looking for the best way to get his 12-year-old daughter, Alina, from Tampa to her grandmother's home in Virginia earlier this year, he was astounded by the fees airlines were charging to put an unaccompanied minor on board.
When he found out that United Airlines was going to charge him $150 each way just to take his daughter, Leffel, author of "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune," changed his approach.
For roughly $240, he bought two tickets on the discount carrier, Allegiant Travel Co (which does not permit unaccompanied minors), and flew with her instead - boarding the plane with nothing but a good book.
Coming home, Alina flew JetBlue Airways on a $98 ticket that doubled with the $100 unaccompanied minor fee. All told her trip cost roughly $300 less than it would have under Plan A.
"Look at all the options," Leffel says. "Sometimes there's a second right answer." Airline fees and policies vary greatly, so it is important to look at each carrier's rules before booking a flight.
A CHAPERONE, FOR THE SHORT WALK TO A SEAT
The decision of when to allow a child to fly alone and the costs involved arise year-round, but can be particularly worrisome during the holidays when planes are typically filled with vacation travelers.
"It's a little scary to put your kid out there on their own," says Leffel. Every plane is packed now. The flight attendants barely have a minute to spare."
Your child will not get a designated chaperone, but rather will be walked onto a flight and off. The airlines' goal is ensuring the child successfully gets to his or her destination.
"Unaccompanied minors receive personalized registration and check-in, and we issue an ID bracelet and boarding documents, which our agents carry," says Jennifer Dohm, spokeswoman for United Airlines. "An agent escorts the young traveler from the ticketing counter to the gate and onto the aircraft, where a flight attendant shows them to their seat, provides a safety briefing and helps with anything else they may need in flight. Upon landing, an agent will escort them outside security to meet their parent or guardian."
Many airlines will only permit travel on non-stop flights or those don't involve a change of planes. Some permit children over a certain age to travel on flights that connect to other flights.
The age ranges vary by airline for how old you can be without being considered an unaccompanied minor. You can fly as an adult on United, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines when you're 12 (although you can pay the fee on United and get the escort until age 17). On Delta Air Lines and JetBlue, you can fly on a regular ticket at age 15.
NOT A BABYSITTING SERVICE
Most airlines don't provide for special attention for an unaccompanied minor beyond getting them on and off the plane and to the adult awaiting their arrival.
"Some parents are under the impression that their children are assigned a baby sitter and that is not true," says veteran flight attendant Sara Keagle, author of "The Flight Attendant Survival Guide."
"Flight attendants introduce themselves to unaccompanied minors and give them a personal safety briefing, that's about it," she says. On JetBlue flights, unaccompanied children sit closest to where the flight attendants themselves sit.
They won't be ignored if they have a problem, Keagle says, but they also won't get extra attention.